If we don’t change, what are the consequences? If we don’t have the courage to take more risks and be more flexible in our approach to meeting the needs of our kids then what I value the most in public education—the kids—is at risk. I don’t think we ask ourselves enough, what if we don’t have the courage to move?
Q: What paths led you to your superintendency at Springfield Public Schools?
A: Born in Missouri, I went through my entire educational experience in Lamar, Missouri. As the youngest of six kids, I was the first in my family to go to college. I often reflect on the great educators who shaped my path and gave me the passion to give back through education, which resulted in my now 20 years of service in public education in Missouri.
I went to college at Missouri Southern in Joplin and received a degree in teaching high school English. My plan was to teach and coach my entire career, but I was encouraged by my administrators to pursue my administrative degree. Low and behold, a few years later, I became the Assistant Principal at a small district in Monett, MO, which led me to becoming a middle school principal and, ultimately, the district’s superintendent six years later.
Spending a decade in administrative positions within that district really shaped my thinking. As a district with a high ELL population, we had opportunities to take risks on behalf of the kids. I eventually moved to Liberty (a suburb of Kansas City) to work as the Deputy Superintendent, until I was promoted to the superintendency just one year later. I thought I would be there for the long-term, but then I had the opportunity to come back closer to home and serve the largest district in the state in Springfield. I’ve been the Superintendent here for four years now.
I witnessed that phenomenon in a few different settings, and I wanted to do better. I knew educators wanted to do better, too. They just want the opportunity to do so.
Q: Although your career path perfectly aligns with the traditional track many educators pursue, you mentioned the unique opportunity you experienced in working with a high ELL population in Monett. What about this experience reshaped how you viewed education?
A: I’ve experienced two of those “epiphany” moments. One, as you said, occurred in Monett. While there, I saw learners who were passionate about growth, and parents who wanted to support them but just didn’t know how. Our system was forced to take significant risks to reach out to these kids and break through the traditional mold because we didn’t think they were going to grow to the level they needed to within the traditional system. That allowed us to integrate technology and experiment with different learning environments early on in Monett.
The second place I experienced growth in my perspective was in Liberty. That experience was completely different. The free and reduced lunch rate was significantly lower, the socio-economic status of the community was much higher, and there were many fewer ELL learners. But, as I walked through the district, I noticed the same challenge—the system was not stretching and growing some of our most gifted learners. We needed to find a way to increase engagement and relevance in the classroom on a daily basis if we really wanted to help these learners develop a passion for learning.
I often use the Gallup data, which reflects the year-over-year decline in engagement that occurs as a child moves through the system. I witnessed that phenomenon in a few different settings, and I wanted to do better. I knew educators wanted to do better, too. They just want the opportunity to do so. I think we provide that opportunity by giving flexibility and resources to think differently about how they serve their kids.
If you give a student a tool, like a tablet, but they have no access to the information (i.e. the internet), this has become a barrier.
Q: We know SPS is seeking to increase engagement through your “Modern Tool Deployment” strategy. Can you share about this strategy for our readers?
A: The idea of a Modern Tool Deployment came out of our conversations at Springfield. I’ve been involved in deploying one-to-one integration systems at each district I’ve worked in. In Monett, we started with it at the high school level. In Liberty and Springfield, we did full deployment for grades 3-12. The point of this Modern Tool Deployment (MTD) was to move beyond this one-to-one deployment conversation of a single device. It’s so much more than that. It should encompass all modern tools and resources. In Springfield, this means we provide each K-2 classroom with iPad Mini 2 tablets and access to a cart of 30 Chromebooks that are shared between classrooms. Students in grades 3-12 each receive a HP Chromebook 11 for their use throughout the school year.
What does it look like to give teachers and kids access to information and resources in a way that is relevant to the world that they’re living in? Of course, that is going to look different five years from now, so we will look at the MTD, refresh it, and think differently about what tools are necessary. Right now, our MTD focuses on equity of access. We have a program where we have deployed around 15,000 Kajeet hotspots within our system for those students who can’t access the internet at home. So, we ensure the modern tool they receive at school doesn’t become a barrier at home. If you give a student a tool, like a tablet, but they have no access to the information (i.e. the internet), this has become a barrier.
This is just a district commitment. We all have limited budgets, and we decide how to spend those dollars. We went back and reviewed our resource—materials, curriculum, and technology—budget. We thought strategically about how we were going to do that in the future, and we’ve repurposed dollars with an equity lens to accomplish what we need to do. We need to make sure we’re taking care of all kids in an equitable way.
Anytime you’re asking a system—and the people in it—to reflect and think about new practices and ways to improve, that’s going to result in a “change” conversation. That will then result in fear, and that fear is going to create pushback.
Q: Through these shifts in budget priorities, what changes are you seeing?
A: First and foremost, we are very cognizant of keeping our educators—they are our number one resource. So, even through this shift in resources, we’ve made no attempt to reduce staff. We believe relationship is the core to education, and it always happens between a teacher and a student. How they do that and where they do that is where there’s flexibility, but that is the one investment I haven’t seen change and hope to have it stay that way.
The places where we do have flexibility are in the resources that we buy and use and the cycles that we use for curriculum. We’ve started to rethink how we buy the resources and how long we’re willing to commit to them. We ask how much feedback the resource is providing—is it one-way or two-way feedback? We ask how fresh and current they will remain over the life of our relationship with that resource. Those are big deciding factors. Big budget dollars haven’t really increased or decreased, but we are certainly spending them in different ways around modern tools and resources that do different things for our kids than the old resource buys we used to make.
Q: When environments make the choice to pursue transformative work, we often see that they either have a staff who is all in on experimenting with new ideas from the beginning or they experience significant staff turnover. What have you experienced?
A: Anytime you’re asking a system—and the people in it—to reflect and think about new practices and ways to improve, that’s going to result in a “change” conversation. That will then result in fear, and that fear is going to create pushback. Sometimes that isn’t because people don’t want to change, they just don’t know how to.
We try to reframe the conversation by providing resources to help them overcome their fear and build the confidence to be successful. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you there is always some pushback. But, the system can do things to quell those fears and overcome them in time.
Q: What is the biggest fear you see?
A: For both parents and educators, the biggest fear, if you go down to the basic classroom environment, is losing control. When they see a modern learning environment where voice and choice are a central component and students have the ability to control some of their learning, that’s not how our educators were trained in the traditional system or how our parents experienced their own education. So, they’re not sure how to do that successfully and wonder if it will result in great learning for their kids. We have to help them with developing those skills and recognizing what it looks like in a classroom to gradually release students to have their own agency and be the learners we want them to be.
When you look at our tagline, we say “every learner” very strategically because we don’t think it’s every student. We think it’s every staff and community member, too.
Q: What does the structure of your internal professional development look like, and what external resources have you found fruitful in smoothing out the transition?
A: We always try to start with the why. We talk about why we are having this conversation about the necessity for change and rethinking what the classroom experience should look like. First, we try to educate and bring people to the table to have a conversation. At Springfield, we started with our Envisioning Excellence Committee of community leaders, teachers, students, and board members to talk about where we are today and what we envision for tomorrow.
That led us to our new strategic plan. That plan is what guides our everyday work. Our biggest shift was moving away from an outcome-metric type of plan to preparing all of our students for tomorrow. We do that by providing an engaging, relevant, and personal educational experience. We try to also shape that experience into the professional learning for our team.
When you look at our tagline, we say “every learner” very strategically because we don’t think it’s every student. We think it’s every staff and community member, too. When they engage with SPS, we want their experience to be engaging, relevant, and personal every day.
Our PD system is built on some voice and choice options. Through our “appy hour” construct, we have leaders at the site level who we give the freedom to make their decisions based on the needs of their individual sites and then provide district resources to help support their growth based on exactly where they are.
We try to provide them with data to make good decisions, as well. There are many different data points we provide, like the BrightBytes data on integration, of what’s going on at the site level, as well as feedback data from community members. We’re about to provide them direct student feedback data regarding the culture of the classroom. All of this allows educators to have data in their hands, so the conversation is being brought to them. And, with this available to them, now they can ask, “What should I do in order to impact the learning environment?”
In summary, we try to make the learning environment we provide our teachers reflect the learning environment we want for our kids.
A lot of our system is designed around starting with that exposure moment. We have a significant number of under-resourced students that don’t know what’s out there. Until they do, they may not know what their interests could be.
Q: How do you think about empowering learner voice at Springfield Public Schools?
A: That’s always a delicate balance. When do you turn agency over to them? We believe the sooner, the better. When we say engaging, relevant, and personal, we have specific definitions for those:
- Engaging: Learning experiences that are irresistible due to connection with student interest. All students experience a culture of inquiry and instructional choice and are encouraged to value learning above the letter grade.
- Relevant: Learning experiences that challenge all students to exhibit the ability to solve real-world problems for authentic audiences and connect learning to their own life and the world around them.
- Personal: Learning experiences founded in relationships that connect educators with students to set goals and monitor progress. All students are inspired to maximize their potential, while receiving appropriate levels of support. Flexibility exists in pace, place, and path of learning.
One of our concrete strategies in making this possible is requesting our teachers to think about “must-dos” and “may-dos” for their students. We understand there are things that have to be part of the learning environment—things we have to cover (must-dos). We also want them to have choice (may-dos). If you were to walk into many of our classrooms, you’ll notice there are charts up for each student that show what they need to get done but also where they have flexibility to pursue something that is within their scope of interest or can be delivered in a non-traditional way.
We also built up a significant online system at the secondary level that allows kids to think differently about how and when they learn. This has multiplied the amount of engagement we see because they have choice in how they capture their learning.
In addition, we have other opportunities that seek to broaden kids’ understanding of what’s out there in the world that could spark their interest. A lot of our system is designed around starting with that exposure moment. We have a significant number of under-resourced students that don’t know what’s out there. Until they do, they may not know what their interests could be.
They always come back and tell us those are the most relevant learning environments they have ever experienced at the secondary level and that they helped shape their future.
Q: What is your favorite story to share about a Springfield learner?
A: One of our favorite stories to highlight is about a former dropout of ours named Nicki. The system wasn’t meeting her needs, so she had dropped out. This was a much too common story, so we decided to develop a dropout reengagement system. We constructed a team to review the dropout list and passionately pursue getting these kids reengaged in the educational experience on whatever front was necessary to get them there.
We believe in that personalization definition—flexibility must exist in pace, place, and path of learning. Nicki reengaged, made it through, and received her diploma this summer. These are the examples of kids who are just falling through the cracks of the traditional system. There are so many kids that are just a credit or two short of graduating, and the system didn’t capture them when they started to slip. So, we have this reengagement process that just saw two more kids receive diplomas right in my office as they caught up on their learning through online coursework.
Q: Springfield is developing a strong relationship between the physical learning environment and the community at-large. What does open-walled learning look like at SPS?
A: Our GO CAPS (Greater Ozarks Centers for Advanced Professional Studies) program is a great example of our kids leaving the classroom and branching out into business and industry environments. They always come back and tell us those are the most relevant learning environments they have ever experienced at the secondary level and that they helped shape their future. It’s really about helping them get energized around learning and drawing a connection to something that makes learning more relevant.
I can think back to a story of when I sat down with a student, and he talked about how the CAPS program he participated in made his classes feel relevant for the first time. Now he understands the need for math and science because of the engineering experience he encounters on a daily basis. We hear these stories over and over again from students and their parents. It improves their attendance, increases their passion, and gives them a sense of direction. That’s something we struggle with providing as educators.
I’m a perfect example. As an English teacher who went straight from high school through the traditional college route, I didn’t have much time to create a lot of relevance to help make that come alive for kids. That’s what our passion is—to expose educators to activities that will help draw relevance back into the classroom. We started a teacher externship program where we put 70 teachers into one-week externships with business and industry professionals. Those teachers who go out and have these experiences tell us they will never teach the same way because they’ve learned something about how to connect content to the world outside of school.
The connection we have with our community is the number one asset we have. It differentiates us, and we have to learn how to take advantage of it. We redesigned our leadership around that belief. We have an Executive Director of Learning Support and Partnerships and an Executive Director of Innovation and Information. Between those two teams, they do significant work to go out and discover different ways to meet our kids’ needs and use our community resources in ways we’ve never tapped before.
When we allow educators and community members to connect and collaborate, we can do awesome things. But, what inhibits us the most is our own history and unwillingness to take a risk. When we get over that, there are great accomplishments to be had.
Those in the business community never thought a small business with two or three employees had anything to give. They thought these partnerships were only for the big players, and that’s far from the truth.
Q: How has the business community reacted to the connections SPS has made?
A: That’s the fun part. We think there’s a saturation point somewhere, but we’re far from getting there. The more we have engaged, the more people come to the table saying, “Hey, I could do something.” Before, those in the business community never thought a small business with two or three employees had anything to give. They previously thought these types of partnerships were only for the big players, and that’s far from the truth.
When those adults are working at the accounting firm, engineering site, or manufacturing plant and they get to engage with kids who are inquisitive, that adds a layer of purpose for their jobs. The businesses tell us that’s one of the things they can’t quantify, but it does result in a value add to their culture and systems. We think that’s the key to moving this kind of work forward. They have to see a return on their investment. If they’re going to give us their time and opportunity to engage at the site—interrupting their workflow—there better be a value proposition. The giving back, contributions, smiles, and the engagement is what I think brings the most value.
Q: We normally wrap up our conversations with a question about the future, but for leaders who are often answering the same questions from parents, community leaders, education leaders, and the like, there is one question they don’t often hear. What is a question that nobody asks you that you wish was asked more often?
A: We have a lot of conversations about “why,” but one thing we fail to dialogue about is what happens if we don’t? I don’t think we have enough conversations about the consequences of us remaining static. That is what keeps me up at night. I want to make these changes for all the right reasons—for kids, obviously—but what’s driving me and our system to have real conversations about this are these consequences. If we don’t change, what are the consequences? If we don’t have the courage to take more risks and be more flexible in our approach to meeting the needs of our kids then what I value the most in public education—the kids—is at risk. I don’t think we ask ourselves enough, what if we don’t have the courage to move?